Probing beyond racial lines: Fulbeck further complicates identity

Amy Phan, Northwest Asian Weekly

November 8, 2008

Movement isn’t limited to the physical alone. It meanders and fluctuates through every other facet of life – like language, societal norms and identity, with answers and definitions changing as rapidly as the question or problem it sought out to satisfy.

Just ask 43-year-old Kip Fulbeck.

He was born into a family of three brothers and one sister who are full Chinese, the result of his Irish-English father marrying his then widowed Chinese mother. As one of the only two Caucasians in his family, he recalled being called “Guai-lo” — meaning ‘white devil’ in Chinese — constantly by his siblings while known in school in the Covina, Calif. area, as the “Asian boy.”

As the definition of Fulbeck’s ethnicity changed depending on each situation, he said he always felt that in order to embrace one culture, he had to alienate the other — specifically when he filled out what race he was on standardized school tests.

“It was like asking me to choose Mom or Dad,” he said during the nationwide speaking tour, “What Are You? The Changing Face of America,” at Seattle University on Thursday, Oct. 16.

But trying to blend in with everyone else was never an option for Fulbeck. He was born two years before interracial marriage was legal. Wherever Fulbeck went, he was always an ethnic conundrum.

“People have called me all sorts of things, like Hawaiian, Native American, Black … everything except Chinese,” he said.

Fast forward about four decades later and no doubt there are more mixed children like Fulbeck — with the last anti-miscegenation law lifted in 1967 — there remains many arbitrary social rules and laws that “are sometimes stupid,” said Fulbeck.

Like the fact that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community cannot legally marry in the majority of the country, a point Fulbeck will often cite to contextualize for audience members that meaningless rules still exist — and its consequent learned behavior — that define who we are.

The tour, which comprises of high school and college stops, is a little bit over an hour of Fulbeck showcasing his acclaimed book, “The Hapa Project,” which addresses Hapa and multiracial identity issues in addition to his latest book of tattoos and identity called “Permanence.” The tour is slated to run until April 2009.

But despite a seemingly multi-platform artistry, Fulbeck’s work can be debunked to one thematic issue: social identity.

His talk engaged audience members to consider who they are without donning any social lenses. Speaking from the perspective that race does not biologically exist, Fulbeck raised notions of the social construction of race and challenged the audience to think of identity divorced from race.

“… because diversity is not just about race. There are so many other issues related, like age, social economics, disability, sexuality,” said Fulbeck.

While we are not racially separated, he says, we do have a right to make up our own multifaceted dimensions of identity sans any anchoring racial characteristics that society predetermines for us.

For “The Hapa Project,” Fulbeck photographed over 1,200 Hapa individuals. Despite its connotative title, there was no racial requirement on who could be in the book — half or otherwise.

“No one gets to decide who you are,” he said. Though once known as a derogatory Hawaiian term — “Hapa,” said Fulbeck, can mean many things, not just someone of mixed race.

“Language moves, morphs and changes,” he said.

It’s a perspective Fulbeck strives to instill in others.

When he isn’t creating art, he’s teaching it. As an art professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he said he always challenges his students to “draw like they did when they were little kids.”

“Kids don’t understand these rules yet. They aren’t afraid to be themselves, no matter the situation,” he said.

But underpinned beneath identity is Fulbeck’s tacit engagement towards social change.

Since most of his talk is largely autobiographical, he said it becomes a source of therapy, to share his experiences of growing up of a mixed race at a time when it was socially unacceptable.

But it isn’t just self-serving.

“It’s also therapeutic in the sense that I find it meaningful that my talk empowers other people to find parallels in my life compared to theirs and that develops meaning,” he said.

Fulbeck described his most memorable piece of fan mail from a Dallas gay man who was able to find similarities from Fulbeck’s experiences in southern California to his own.

“I hope that audience members leave my show a bit more curious and conscious of the world we live in,” he said.

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